BORN OR ADOPTED?
T. Pierce Brown
Most of the time when I have been asked, “Is a man born into the family of God, or adopted?” I have replied, “`Born’ or `adopted’ are simply two different terms indicating a method of entering a family, so it does not matter.” I was simply indicating what I thought every reference work and dictionary to which I have access says. In addition to that, every preacher of the gospel that I heard speak of it used the terms synonymously. Upon further examination, I not only discover that most of the reference works start and end with the assumption that the terms refer to the same thing, without giving any Bible reference that indicates that to be the fact. I now believe we have overlooked some interesting, though not crucial things.
The Greek term translated “adoption” is “huiothesia” about which Thayer says, “The nature and condition of the true disciples of Christ, who by receiving the Spirit of God into their souls become sons of God.” He adds, “It also includes the blessed state looked for in the future life after the visible return of Christ from heaven — i.e., the consummate condition of the sons of God which will render it evident that they are sons of God.” We wish that our readers and we were always able to differentiate between a casual opinion expressed by an “authority,” and a scholarly, definitive conclusion, arrived at and proven by the proper analytical methods. Also, we wish the authority or the student would make a proper distinction between the meaning of a term and the thing to which the term refers in a particular context. For example, “baptizo” means “dip, plunge, immerse or overwhelm.” It may refer to immersion in water for the remission of sin, being overwhelmed with grief, suffering, etc., or in some denominational terminology, “a water ritual by which one is designated a member of a religious group.”
So, we suggest to you that the term “huiothesia” means “standing as sons.” Whether it refers to some “standing’ or “position” which sons may have in a particular situation, or whether it refers to a COMING INTO a position as a son depends on how we actually find it used in the Bible. The only clear statement of which we are aware which indicates its use in the New Testament is the one in which Thayer says “it ALSO includes” in Romans 8:23, which says, “And not only so, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of the body.”
As far as we know, it is not used in the Septuagint, and we find no case from Herodotus to the “church Fathers” (including the New Testament) where the word clearly means “coming into a family.” We admit that all the reference works to which we have access define the word “adoption” as “an act by which a person takes another person into his family”, or words to that effect. But a careful student may notice that NONE of them in that definition gave as a reference the word “huiothesia” and shows that IT was used in that way. In EVERY case we have checked, the “authority” takes the English word, “adopted,” and applies IT to what has happened, such as Jacob adopting Ephraim and Manasseh, or Mordeciah adopting Esther, or the daughter of Pharaoh adopting Moses. But the word “huiothesia” is never used about these cases.
We have no objection to the use of the word “adopted” in those cases, but we DO have serious objections when a “scholarly authority” makes a group of statements about “adoption” and ASSUMES, and allows his readers to assume, that he has defined the term “huiothesia” which God used, and which men have erroneously translated “adoption.” The reason we say this is because the word, in any use we have found in the Bible, NEVER clearly refers to what the term “adoption” means to us — “the act by which a person takes a stranger into his family.”
The etymology of the word suggests that it literally means “standing as a son,” and probably most of us, including the “authorities,” have ASSUMED that means, “becoming a son.” I am forced to conclude, at this moment, that the word refers to one who IS a son coming into a certain standing AS a son, but in NO case, simply BECOMING a son, equivalent to what we mean by being born, or adopted. In EVERY case, we think it is not “sonship”, per se, that is being considered, but the standing or position to which the sonship entitles one.
The only verse I know that clearly defines one such aspect of “adoption” is Romans 8:28, to which we previously alluded. The “redemption of the body” CANNOT refer to our PRESENT SALVATION, for it is “we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” who are “waiting for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” There are four other times the word is used in the New Testament, NONE of which violates the basic meaning of the term. It is true that they do not as clearly express the idea as this passage, but if ONE passage sets out what a term means, and no other passages show any other meaning, how better can we discover the meaning of ANY term?
In Romans 8:15, we find, “For ye received not the spirit of bondage unto fear, but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, `Abba, Father’.” It is apparently assumed by most of us that Paul means, “When you BECAME a son, you received the spirit of a son, whereby you can now say, `Father’.” My judgment is that the “spirit of adoption” is the spirit of one who IS ALREADY A SON, now looking forward to what Paul expresses in the next two verses — the glorification with Christ when we come into our inheritance as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Is there anything wrong with the concept that one who IS a son should have the “the spirit of sonship” — the spirit in which he yearns for a particular standing as a son (which is what the word “huiothesia” means)?
In Romans 9:4, the Israelites are mentioned as those “whose is the adoption.” Most commentators, I presume, would admit that the term has nothing whatever to do with “being born again,” but refers to their standing as sons. The point I am making is that “huiothesia” NEVER refers, as far as we can tell, to COMING INTO THE FAMILY, as “being born again” or literally, “being generated from above” does. It ALWAYS refers to the standing or position of a son who has the rights and privileges of the inheritance — whatever they may be. In our case, they involve the redemption of the body, and whatever glorification we shall have with Christ.
This seems to be very close to the idea found in Galatians 4:1-4. The Israelites were heirs, but it did not do them much good as long as they were like bondservants. But God sent forth his Son to redeem them that they might receive the “adoption of sons.” Most of us have apparently ASSUMED that he meant “that they might be adopted AS sons.” But it does not say that. Although I do not approve of the NIV in general, I happened to notice right now that it is here translated, “The full right of sons.” I do not know how the translators arrived at the conclusion that this is the correct idea, but I suppose even a blind hog can occasionally find an acorn. Instead of Paul saying that Christ came to redeem the Israelites that they might COME INTO the family of God, he is saying that he came to redeem them that they might receive the “adoption OF sons” — the full right of sons — a special position that an adult son will receive as an heir, as verse 7 suggests.
In Ephesians 1:5, we are told that he “foreordained us unto `adoption as sons'”. This has been understood to mean, “adopted INTO the family of God that we might BECOME sons.” What it actually teaches is that he chose us before the foundation of the world that we, who have chosen to be holy and without blemish — sons of God — might receive the “adoption as sons” — the standing or position AS adult sons, to the praise of the glory of His grace, or as verse 14 climaxes it, “Unto the redemption of God’s own possession.”
I do not know that this concept is crucial, but I think it better to be right than wrong. When God speaks of generating us from above (commonly translated “born again”), the idea involves the fact that we thus become partakers of a new nature. The English word “adoption” does not involve that fact! It is therefore inadequate and inaccurate representation of our relationship with God. But the Greek word, “huiothesia,” since it does not actually mean “adoption” in the first place, but means “standing as sons,” DOES represent accurately the STANDING OR POSITION which we, as sons, will have at the redemption of our bodies. Being born from above is an ACT. “Huiothesia” is a STATE. I am willing to stick with Paul’s definition in Romans8:23, unless someone can show that God somewhere gives another one. So far I have not found it. Have you?
Since I wrote the above, I decided to check Vine’s Expository Dictionary. Why I had not checked it before, I do not know. He says on page 34, “God does not adopt believers as children; they are begotten as such by His Holy Spirit through faith. Adoption is a term involving the dignity of the relationship of believers as sons; it is not a putting into the family by spiritual birth, but a putting into the position of sons.”